Police chiefs ignoring guidelines on keeping details of suspects

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The Independent Online

Police chiefs are ignoring official guidelines on keeping criminal intelligence on suspects, an issue highlighted by the case of Ian Huntley, The Independent has found.

Chief constables have widely differing policies on the length of time that information on unconvicted individuals accused of serious crimes can be kept on file.

A poll of the 43 forces in England and Wales showed that some kept data for three months, others for one year, five years, seven years, 10 years, and indefinitely. Only one force could identify, and had adopted, the official guidelines from the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) and many forces ignored the organisation's recommendation to keep records of undetected crime for a minimum of 10 years. Several forces said that they followed the guidelines, but gave no details.

Flaws in the retention of intelligence based on unsubstantiated allegations were highlighted in the Soham case. Humberside Police were criticised for deleting files on Huntley that showed he had been accused of four rapes, indecently assaulting an 11-year-old girl, and four counts of having under-age sex. He was able to get a job as a caretaker at Soham Village College, a secondary school, because Humberside did not keep records unless there was a conviction.

The force said it was following rules in the Data Protection Act. The data protection watchdog and ministers said these rules did not exist. But a survey of the other 42 forces in England and Wales revealed that police chiefs had hugely differing interpretations of the rules and it appears to be a lottery on whether a suspect has intelligence kept on file. Nothing in the Data Protection Act requires police to destroy data about old offences or allegations, yet some forces automatically delete or "weed" material after five and seven years. Others review records every 12 months and some keep intelligence relating to serious crimes indefinitely.

James Paice, the shadow Police minister and the Tory MP for Cambridgeshire South East, which includes Soham, said that he would raise the issues highlighted by The Independent with the Home Secretary. He said he wanted them to be considered by the independent review set up by David Blunkett after Huntley's conviction.He said: "It's clearly not acceptable. Your investigation shows widespread confusion about what the Data Protection Act means. This needs to be clarified urgently. We can't have a situation where it depends on which force area you live in whether the police will retain information on you." Acpo says that reports of serious undetected crime should be kept for a minimum of 10 years. Its guidelines say: "Undetected crime records may be retained indefinitely, but should be reviewed every five years, after the initial 10-year period."

But the survey found that Lincolnshire, Gloucestershire, Cleveland, Avon and Somerset and Staffordshire forces keep information for a 12-month minimum, then review it at least every 12 months. Warwickshire keeps information from one to 10 years, West Mercia for seven, Cheshire for 10. Cambridgeshire Police review data every three months.

Metropolitan, Greater Manchester, North Yorkshire, South Wales and Merseyside forces vary the time and do not have limits, but will keep information indefinitely if necessary.

¿ A reporter appeared in court yesterday charged with smuggling a camera into a prison where Huntley was being held. A News of the World journalist, David McGee, 36, from London, was remanded on bail by magistrates at Milton Keynes. The undercover reporter got a job as a warder at Woodhill prison in Milton Keynes in May.